The 22 best Canadian albums of 2022

We make a case for why albums from Jessie Reyez, Isabella Lovestory, Aquakultre and more were the best of the year.

We make a case for why albums from Jessie Reyez, Aquakultre and more were the best of the year

Jessie Reyez and Aquakultre's albums both made our best-of list this year. (Jeremy Chan/Getty Images; Kyle Cunjak; design by CBC Music)

2022 is such a difficult year to encapsulate. At a glance, it felt free: festivals returned, venues filled and touring ramped back up. But the thrum under it all was a constant threat of illness, coupled with insurance hikes and inflation that made it "not even worth it for your average artist to get on the road anymore," as Cadence Weapon told CBC News earlier this month.

But one undeniable way to support Canadian musicians year-round is to buy and listen to their albums — and what a number of gifts they gave us to choose from this year.

From Avril Lavigne's personal pop-punk renaissance, to  Aquakultre's "posse'd out" album, to an early January expansion of the Weeknd's musical universe, we had an incredible selection from which to make our list of best albums of the year. You may notice some glaring omissions, though: there were EPs that we loved (hello, Savannah Ré), but we kept our focus solely on full-lengths; plus, our choice of best Canadian classical albums will be out on Dec. 8. And since we kept our list to a tight 22, we had to say honestly, nevermind to a couple big ones.

So sit back, put your headphones on and have a look at our list of best albums of the year, as chosen by CBC Music producers. What have we missed? Let us know via Twitter @CBCMusic.

22. Lesbienne woke sur l'autotune, Calamine

Lesbienne woke sur l'autotune is the second album from Montreal-based rapper Calamine, a.k.a. Julie Gagnon, who was chosen as one of Radio-Canada's Révélatons in 2021-22 — a musician leading the next generation of music. Calamine is a queer, anti-capitalist feminist, and she raps incisively about the intersection of her identities throughout her work. ("No shame, j'suis en mode Shane dans le L Word," she raps on "Officielle gouine," a song where Calamine swaps in the title term "officielle gouine" (official lesbian) to replace the slang OG.). Calamine lays her verses atop catchy R&B and jazz rhythms, and her lyrics navigate between social demands and thoughtful observations on everyday life, including Gagnon's veganism ("J'mange pas ça des cadavres"). Everything is said with a touch of humour, self-mockery and intimacy — and most of all, good puns: "I got 99 problems, c'est le un pour cent," she raps on "Pas besoin de grand chose." Calamine's lyrics are to the point, her rhymes thoughtful and well delivered, and her flow is silky smooth. Her pen is also razor sharp: Lesbienne woke sur l'autotune's title was inspired by an insult the rapper got on social media — which turned out to be the fuel she needed to write a title track in response to the patriarchy. — Caroline Lévesque

21. Crybaby, Tegan and Sara

The knowing wink within Tegan and Sara's punchy album opener "I Can't Grow Up" is that the twin sisters' have shared so much with fans over their nearly 30-year career that their young and adult selves feel inextricable. Especially over the last handful of years: Tegan and Sara Quin have mined their past for a memoir, a TV show based on said memoir, and for Melody Lau's book about their life and influence. Now in their early 40s, after a pandemic that forced them (and everyone) to slow down and re-evaluate — as well as a new baby, a new dog and a new house — the Quin sisters have taken the power that comes from looking back (with healthy distance) and transformed it into a hybrid of their indie-rock roots and pop expertise on their 10th full-length album, Crybaby

Experts at polishing the sharp edges of sadness into healing melodies, Tegan and Sara pushed each other in new ways on Crybaby, working with producer John Congleton (Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten) for the first time. "Some of Tegan's songs became almost like duets, because she allowed me to go in there and challenge her to rewrite lyrics," said Sara in a press release, describing their writing process for Crybaby. You can feel that on the Tegan-penned "Smoking Weed Alone," which has the twins' first back-and-forth chorus, as well as a gentle, back-and-forth energy between Tegan and Sara throughout the album. The cheekily named Crybaby is the perfect misnomer for a duo that always made it OK for you to cry; Tegan and Sara have long grown up, but they'll (thankfully) never leave their old selves behind. — Holly Gordon

20. Love Sux, Avril Lavigne 

Only three years have passed since Avril Lavigne's last album, 2019's Christian rock-charting Head Above Water, but this year felt like a comeback for the Canadian pop star in many ways. Pop-punk's resurgence in recent years — in addition to Lavigne's seminal debut, Let Go, turning 20 years old — laid the foundation for Lavigne's return to big, punchy anthems, igniting her own personal pop-punk renaissance with her seventh release, Love Sux.

Powered by the agile drumming of Blink-182's Travis Barker, as well as features from Machine Gun Kelly, Blackbear and Barker's bandmate Mark Hoppus, Lavigne sounds even more pop-punk now than on Let Go, an album that actually had more mid-tempo bangers, prompting a young Lavigne to push back against the punk label she had been given. "Like a ticking time bomb, I'm about to explode," Lavigne howls on opener "Cannonball." That energy surges through the rest of the album, with Lavigne tearing through feelings of heartbreak over power chords, pounding drums and some of the best hooks and melodies she's written in a long time. Love can indeed suck sometimes (and admittedly, the singer found love in the middle of recording this album), but Lavigne makes it all sound fun, yet again transforming angst into pop gold. — Melody Lau

19. Come Morning, the Bros. Landreth

It's always darkest before the dawn, goes the expression, and anyone who's lain awake at 3 a.m. fretting over some minor annoyance will know it to be true. In the bigger scheme of things, it can also be true of genuine suffering, and that's the theme the Bros. Landreth explore on Come Morning, their seventh studio album. "Last time, we were just walking on a rug that had all kinds of stuff swept under it," reflects the folk-country duo's Joey Landreth, explaining how the songs on Come Morning, by contrast, "lean into the tough stuff, like processing emotional trauma and finding strength on the other side."

"What if every tear ever cried went floating down a river wild/ and all the grey just rolled away," posits the gently waltzing "After the Rain," an anthem for the downtrodden. On "What in the World," Joey asks a long list of rhetorical questions — "When I get too high, who'd take off my crown?/ When I'm up on the ledge, who'd talk me down?" — his voice a loving caress. Whereas on previous projects, guitar solos were rather expansive and exuberant, on Come Morning, they're sparser and in fact more poignant for their restraint. Subtle touches of organ add texture to the tender lament "You Don't Know Me," an exquisite breakup song. The album's emotional core is "Don't Feel Like Crying," a song of resilience featuring Leith Ross, whose harmonizing takes the chorus to another level. — Robert Rowat

18. Cherry, Daphni

As Caribou, Dan Snaith is accustomed to playing festival stages in front of thousands, but it's always refreshing to see him return to making music under his Daphni moniker. Swapping the open air for clandestine clubs, he becomes more insular, creating moments that simmer expectantly, never quite boiling over. Cherry, Snaith's third Daphni album, is bursting with frenetic energy; zipping and whizzing along, it demands constant movement. Detroit techno propels its core, but Snaith throws in surprises: from broken beats to swinging kick drums to Latin brass. Sonically, it encapsulates our increasingly scattered attention spans, as we deal with a constant onslaught of information coming from everywhere, all at once. 

During the production process, Snaith himself couldn't even see the full picture until he got all the songs in the right sequence: "When the tracks were put in what felt like the right order it took on a new coherence where it pings quickly from one idea to the next and, at least for me, hangs together in a way that feels unified," Snaith said in a press release. From the sharp cacophony of "Cherry" to the blissful effervescence of "Cloudy," repetitive loops lock you into a trance. The album keeps you tethered to the dance floor — even if it's just the one in your mind. — Kelsey Adams

17. Labyrinthitis, Destroyer 

Leave it to Destroyer's Dan Bejar to choose an album title that references an inner ear infection that causes dizziness and disorientation. To most people, getting labyrinthitis sounds terrifying; for Bejar, it's his musical modus operandi. Having built a reputation as a cryptic songwriter, Destroyer's 13th studio album is less interested in guiding you through its themes or narratives as much as it's just asking you to surrender to the music itself: a dazzling display of indie-rock that also wants to dance, at times veering toward new wave and disco. "I have no instructions on how to digest Labyrinthitis as a record," Bejar told us earlier this year, when the album was shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize, "As a listener of music, I can't imagine being receptive to any." As such, these 10 tracks act as a Rorschach test, and takeaways can vary. But if you're up for a thrilling ride — which can take you from last-minute swerves of spoken word ("June") to synth explosions ("Tintoretto, it's for You") to an electro-pop meditation ("The States") — Labyrinthitis promises to never bore. Just dive in and perhaps you'll be able to find your own truth — that's what Bejar is still trying to do. — ML

16. Blue Rev, Alvvays

The silence between Alvvays' albums can be deafening, as the guitar-pop band withdraws fully between tours and releases. (In an interview with CBC Music for 2017's Antisocialites, singer Molly Rankin said she was reluctant to become a "hermit" to write the album at first but "now I refuse to be anything but.") So far, though, the East Coast-born, Toronto-based band rewards us immeasurably upon return — and its third album, Blue Rev, is a power-pop masterpiece filled with the melancholy lyrics only Rankin can deliver. "But things fade/ like the scent of a brand new car/ why would I ever fall in love again/ when every detail is over the guardrail?" she sings two minutes into standout "After the Earthquake" over a swirl of jangly guitars, creating a dizzying stream-of-consciousness reverie. 

This time working with producer Shawn Everett (the War on Drugs, Kacey Musgraves, the Killers), Alvvays has deftly crafted power pop that pulls nostalgic strings while undeniably staking its claim on 2022, prompting Pitchfork to call Blue Rev "the sound of the genre today." Rankin and bandmates Alec O'Hanley, Kerri MacLellan, Sheridan Riley and Abbey Blackwell have come out swinging with every track on the album — singles "Pharmacist" and "Easy on Your Own?" really showcase that layered, reverbed ramp-up — and not only does it sound like they've mastered their sound, but that they're having a blast doing it. It's maybe unusual that an album named after a sickly sweet vodka cooler — one I personally wish never to taste outside of high school — would pack such a polished punch, but that's the magic of this band: while a bit aloof and sometimes unreachable, Alvvays knows exactly what we need — and when.  — HG

15. No Longer in the Suburbs, Dylan Sinclair

In early November, R&B musician Dylan Sinclair dropped four new singles, expanding his EP No Longer in the Suburbs, released last spring, into a fully fledged (and fully satisfying) album. The recent additions include an accomplished remix of "Open" featuring Destin Conrad and Jvck James, and "Never," a romantic duet with L.A.-based juggernaut Joyce Wrice, whose recent collaborators include Lucky Daye and Kaytranada. This is the big league, and Sinclair proves he belongs with distinctive vocals, seamless production and introspective lyrics. The first single was "Suppress," a moody, slow burn of a song about being emotionally unavailable. Then came "Lifetime," a mellow meditation on the changes that fame and fortune might bring: "I'm afraid you won't embrace who I'll become," he sings, his falsetto a whisper that floats atop a hair-raising accompaniment of cello and acoustic guitar. The tempo picks up on "I'm in It," whose wistful meanderings address jealousy and the tension around being faithful. A tender ballad, "If you Feel Like Leaving Me" demonstrates his singing's persuasive power.

While there were echoes of Daniel Caesar, whom he names as an influence, on Sinclair's Juno-nominated debut album, Proverb, the 20-year-old has quickly emerged with a sound and voice all his own on No Longer in the Suburbs, its title a reflection of Sinclair's compulsion to broaden his life experience and deepen his songwriting. Mission accomplished. — RR

14. Chiac Disco, Lisa LeBlanc

If you look at the folk-rock catalogue of Acadian singer Lisa LeBlanc over the last decade, her 2022 Polaris Prize-shortlisted album, Chiac Disco, is particularly surprising. A continuation of LeBlanc's bingo alter ego Belinda (a pandemic project), the singer's fifth release leans into the sounds of the '60s and '70s with captivating disco, funk and pop rhythms mixed with Acadian chiac lyrics, orchestral instrumentation ("Entre toi pi moi pi la corde de bois") and stunning song introductions ("Dans l'jus"). Keyboards, cello, tuba, trumpet, trombone, bass and contrabass all make an appearance on Chiac Disco, thanks to collaborators Mico Roy, Léandre Bourgeois and Benoît Morier. Some lyrics reflect LeBlanc's time during the pandemic ("Pourquoi faire aujourd'hui") or the life of rural New Brunswick ("Gossip"), while some are a long list of traditional Acadian dishes ("Le menu acadien") served on a plate of psychedelia. Each song is sustained by a bassline, a touch of glam, kitsch and complex arrangements topped with a lot of humor. Showcasing LeBlanc's freedom as a musician, lyricist and producer, Chiac Disco is an Acadian Saturday Night Fever— CL

Lisa LeBlanc | The Polaris Music Prize Gala

2 months ago
Duration 10:26

13. Amor Hardcore, Isabella Lovestory

Isabella Lovestory's debut album is a defiant opus of cheeky sexiness, flippant lyricism and power dynamics turned on their heads — and it starts at an explosive speed and never lets go of the clutch. Lovestory dropped her first single in 2019, and has since been serving a steady dose of exhilarating neoperreo, an underground subgenre of reggaeton, ever since. The Honduran-born, Montreal-based artist has had a big 2022 on top of releasing her debut: she featured on British producer Mura Masa's latest album, and wrote for K-pop girl group Le Sserafim. Lovestory told the Fader in October that Amor Hardcore is "a colorful neon roller coaster, a journey exploring expressions of love full of contrasting lights, sounds and rhythms." Gaudy maximalism is the point on the album: ringing synths, rolling drums, body-shaking bass, barking, meowing, cackling midway through songs — it all comes together to create a sensory overload that Lovestory handles with distinct flair. She's a woman in complete control, singing about her kinks (exhibitionism and domming) and the hardcore love (and sex) that she craves. There's no room for modesty or shame — how else can you get what you want if you don't ask for it? — KA 

12. Everywhere I Used to Be, Mariel Buckley

The view looks different from the other side — everyone who has survived or endured something difficult knows this — but Mariel Buckley's compassionate candour for the rearview mirror makes for some of the most beautiful country music of the year. Everywhere I Used to Be unfolds like a series of letters to all the people Buckley used to be, and the ones she used to know. Some songs are a relentless momentum of galloping guitars and pedal steel, drums and synths; others are spare and spacious, a loose acoustic corral for the narrative circles Buckley treads and re-treads, revealing deeper truths with every step. Over 10 tracks, Buckley explores the destruction and durability of a life on the road and living on the fringes, and she does so with humour, frankness and so much love: a queer kid in a small town; a musician trying to make a living on the dive-bar circuit; a person like any other living with addiction and coping with mental health and discrimination, trying to heal from loneliness, self-loathing and a mess of fractured hearts. When writing up the album in CBC Music's summer preview earlier this year, I described Buckley as an essential new voice in Canadian music, and after spending so many months with this record I want to expand on that. It's not just her exceptional craft as a songwriter; Buckley's voice is frank and warm, wry when necessary, and shows the strength it takes to be truly vulnerable. — Andrea Warner

11. Duality, Luna Li 

"And the Earth lives in you, you've just got to listen," Luna Li's Hannah Bussiere Kim sings on Duality's opening track "Cherry Pit." "Cause it turns in you, baby bloom." The Toronto musician's rise can be pinpointed to early pandemic days when we were all stuck at home; it was Kim's instrumental jams that first caught the attention of over a million people as she performed minute-long sketches or ideas on her social platforms — seeds of songs that would later blossom into her debut album. 

On Duality, Kim tries to find a balance between two worlds. Coming from a classical music background, she tries to merge her past and present together by adding orchestral touches to an otherwise indie-rock record, creating an ethereal space of her own that feels fantastical yet grounded in very real emotions ranging from joy to sadness and anxiety. (Highlights that illustrate this include "Afterglow" and "Alone but not Lonely," which make space for violins, harps and St. Vincent-style guitar riffs.) And through this work, she also attempts to find a balance between her Korean and Canadian identities by becoming the representation she once sought in a music scene that was dominated by white artists. Created in a time of isolation and uncertainty, Kim's work has helped both her and her fans find connection, community and a sense of wholeness — a monumental achievement for a new artist. — ML

10. abdalla, Mah Moud

It's not the easiest thing to look inside yourself and take apart your past — to look at the definitive moments that made you and see if you're more than just the sum of your parts. But that's exactly what rising singer-songwriter Mah Moud has done on his debut album, abdalla. It's a study of his own life, during the developmental years from early childhood to the end of high school; the child of Eritrean refugees raised in Toronto, Mah Moud has a singular, diasporic voice. He opens the album on "1167" singing in Arabic, reminisces about the Canadian television channels he watched as a kid on "Bruce," and gives a nod to the Eritrean national anthem on "Ertra, Eritrea, Eritrea." The songwriting is searing in its honesty, the pathos and urgency in his voice immediately gripping — all of his uncertainty, pain, love and wonder wrapped up together. The tone of abdalla is quite subdued, as gentle folk guitar and piano lead most of the melodies, but occasionally a blast of experimental synths or jazzy scatting livens things up. Mah Moud has worked with Mustafa, River Tiber, GOVI and Shad in the past, and has been heralded as one to watch since his 2018 EP, Maba. This album feels very much like a graduation, and as he enters his next phase, it's abundantly clear that Mah Moud's creativity and artistry are boundless. — KA

9. Sewn Back Together, Ombiigizi

Sewing something back together is an act of repair, an act of labour, an act of healing, and sometimes, if you're lucky, an act of love. Ombiigizi's co-lead singers/songwriters — Adam Sturgeon, who also records as Status/Non Status, and Daniel Glenn Monkman, who also records as Zoon —.evoke all of these interpretations on their Polaris Music Prize-shortlisted debut. The first-time collaborators, whose solo projects sound nothing alike, make cohesive, compelling music as they explore healing, family, and shared aspects of their Anishinaabe identities throughout Sewn Back Together: from the dreamy, fizzy nostalgia of album opener "Cherry Coke," to "Ogin" and its quietly urgent momentum of endless, expansive grief, to "The Spirit in Me," a relentlessly propulsive and crushing ode to survival and resilience, healing and family, culture and community. "Sewn Back Together is a reflection of something that Monkman's been saying about this project all along: 'It's easier to lift heavy things together,'" Sturgeon told CBC Music in an interview alongside Monkman earlier this year. "And a big part of the goal was to do something positive for ourselves, because in our individual work, the commonality for us both was that, at times, we would feel very isolated." In crafting what they needed on Sewn Back Together, Ombiigizi made medicine from their music. We're just lucky they've shared it with the world. — AW

8. Tongues, Tanya Tagaq

As a listening experience, Tongues is a masterpiece in expansive sonic landscapes that evoke and agitate, devastate and avenge. Electronic beats like exploding stars, drums that shimmer and smash, strings that drone and chill like ice breaking under our feet. There's Tagaq's voice, an ever-present and all-consuming conductor through every track, volcanic and menacing at its most explosively outraged and fur-and-petal gentle at its softest and most hopeful. Then there are her powerful lyrics, as crushingly poetic and visceral as her award-winning book, Split Tooth. "They tried to take our tongues," she sings before warning: "You can't take that from us." The furious scream of "You colonizer, you colonizer!" echoes the ongoing violence of settler-colonialism followed by Tagaq's sing-song refrain, "Oh you're guilty, oh you're guilty." "Touch my children and my teeth welcome your windpipe" is just one example of Tagaq's unforgettable and unflinching imagery. Tongues is jagged and sharp and resonant, a collision of throat-singing, metal and chaotic jazz that's as transfixing and visceral as it is heart-thumpingly hypnotic and harrowing. — AW

7. Watin, Aysanabee

"What's your name?" asks Aysanabee's grandfather, as the song "Nomads" from Oji-Cree multi-instrumentalist Aysanabee, a.k.a. Evan Pang, comes to a close. It's the question at the heart of this debut album, Watin, a project named after his grandfather. Watin's name was changed to "Walter" when he was forced to attend residential school in northwestern Ontario, and the name Aysanabee is itself a reclaiming: the moniker is Pang's mother's maiden name, as she gave him the last name Pang — one that "doesn't have any connection to anyone," as he recently told Unreserved — because she thought it'd be easier for him to find work with a non-Indigenous name. 

But on Watin, Aysanabee pushes back against his family's erasure. The album's backbone is built with nine recordings of conversations Aysanabee had with his grandfather during the pandemic, where Watin opens up about the trauma of residential school and how he later started his young family. In response to each recording Aysanabee offers nine stunning songs, weaving Watin's story with his own, one core-shaking song after another. "Seeseepano" serves as the album's opening anthem, Aysanabee pleading "Won't you tell me?" backed by gorgeous harmonies; on "We Were Here" his voice holds a rainbow of emotion over building piano and percussion; and on "Nomads," that final song, he cleverly twists his lyrics, singing, "Grandfather/ did we flip the scripture? Grandfather/ I think we've flipped the script/ I'm sure," before the galloping drums kick in. Aysanabee is a multi-instrumental force, and on Watin he joins his incomparable voice with his grandfather's, linking his past to his present in powerful reclamation. — HG

6. Semblance, MorMor

MorMor's resonant falsetto is so transfixing, and it's given all the space to shine on Semblance's first track, "Dawn." His melancholy is palpable as he sings "I can't seem to get it right," foreshadowing an ever-present theme throughout the album. Semblance asks the same questions in many ways within its 11 songs: How does one appear held together while internally tearing at the seams? How does one put on a brave face and perform a semblance of normalcy? Seth Nyquist, the name behind the MorMor moniker, may not have an answer, but he's inviting listeners into his most intimate and insular songwriting yet as he parses through the damage.

He wrote, produced and performed everything on Semblance alone, the album-making process just as isolating an experience as the listening. Deep-seated insecurity, fears of inadequacy, ruminating over lost love — all the things that haunt us late at night are laid bare to be closely examined on the album. On "Lifeless," he contemplates how to go on when nothing feels worth it; on "Crawl," he wonders if he was ever enough for his lover. The album is punctuated by moments of levity that counterbalance these more wistful songs. Upbeat basslines, syncopated drums and bright synths make "Far Apart" and "Chasing Ghosts" sonic outliers among the otherwise subtle production, but they're still about tackling internal strife. Semblance is all raw vulnerability, and there's no pageantry to disguise the pain — which is why it hits you so squarely in the chest. — KA

5. The Loneliest Time, Carly Rae Jepsen 

Surrender my heart
(I'm out here in the open)
I wanna get closer

Over the past decade, Carly Rae Jepsen has become pop music's scholar of love. But while we've come to associate the B.C.-born artist with the euphoric highs of falling in love (see: "Run Away With Me," "Cut to the Feeling"), Jepsen is also an expert on distance — longing for someone, wallowing in the chasm between two people, and sometimes even the need for space. This is why Jepsen's latest album, The Loneliest Time, feels of a piece with the rest of her catalogue, like looking at the flip side of a coin. Inspired by the pandemic lockdowns, The Loneliest Time explores Jepsen's vulnerabilities without fully letting go of her optimism and desire to connect with others. Sonically, Jepsen also branches out even further beyond her '80s synth-pop signature, inviting in folk sounds on "Western Wind" and flashy disco moments on the closing title track. Even when we've experienced the loneliest times, as many of us have in the past few years, leave it to Jepsen to find the silver lining and to keep fighting in the name of love, as she and fellow Canadian Rufus Wainwright sing on that final track: "I could be yours just like before/ rewrite another try." — ML

4. Don't Trip, Aquakultre

"I need everybody to report to the dancefloor for a special presentation." This exhortation arrives early in "I Can Wait," the opening track of Aquakultre's Don't Trip, and rarely has following orders been so easy or gratifying. It's a welcoming, quasi-improvisational jam that sets the tone for the dozen tunes that follow — "like stepping into a Halifax house party in full swing," promised the R&B/soul musician, whose real name is Lance Sampson, in a statement — and prepares the way for a whole roster of collaborators who add shiny facets to this gem of an album. DJ Ransom swaps bars with Sampson on "I'm for Real," a slapping g-funk number with subtle touches of scratching that recall '80s-era production. The commanding vocals of Lakita Wiggins and deft keyboards of Trobiz take "It's all Good" to a higher plane. "You got Feels," a sophisticated jazzhop collaboration with Owen O'Sound Lee and pHoenix Pagliacci, channels top-drawer Black Radio.

"This album is totally posse'd out," Sampson enthused, perhaps deflecting the praise he deserves for assembling the talent, producing all the music himself and enfolding such stylistic range within a single project, from the disco tingle of "Magic" to the Cajun groove of "Africvillean Funk," to the affirmative spirit of the title track. Listen carefully to "Lunch," and you'll hear the delicate vocals of Joolsannie, a.k.a. Julia Hutt, with whom Sampson fell in love during the pandemic, sparking the creativity behind Don't Trip and all its riches. — RR

3. José Louis and the Paradox of Love, Pierre Kwenders

With this third album, José Louis and the Paradox of Love, Pierre Kwenders won the 2022 Polaris Music Prize while beautifully celebrating the music of the African diaspora found — and continued — in Canada. Born José Louis Modabi in the Congo capital Kinshasa, Kwenders reveals himself on this album, not as a moniker but through the personal narrative of his given name, and by paying tribute to the African artists who inspired him (including Congolese artist Papa Wemba). The breadth of collaborations on Kwenders' albums is always a strength, and José Louis and the Paradox of Love is no exception, featuring American DJ and producer King Britt on the captivating, nine-minute opening song, "L.E.S. (Liberté Égalité Sagacité)," as well as French Senegalese artist Anaiis ("Heartbeat") and on "Church (Likambo)" Montreal-based African gospel choir Afrika Intshiyetu, in which Kwenders used to sing. A multilingual artist, Kwenders knows how to cross cultures, using his sensual, soft vocals in five different languages (Lingala, French, English, Tshiluba and Kikongo) to express himself in a way that ensures listeners don't need to understand the lyrics in order to connect. On José Louis and the Paradox of Love, Kwenders navigates easily between pop, Congolese rumba (soukous), soul and R&B, weaving them together harmoniously — proving that his music has no boundaries. — CL

Pierre Kwenders | The Polaris Music Prize Gala

2 months ago
Duration 9:37

2. Yessie, Jessie Reyez

Jessie Reyez has some choice words for the people who were M.I.A. when she was at her lowest but are hitting her up now that she's popping. Within the first verse of album opener "Mood," we know exactly how she's feeling about her growing fame. Reyez's pen has always been razor sharp, and she never tiptoes around the point (her words always laced with a few F-bombs for good measure). Reyez's brand of unabashed R&B has made her stand out since she emerged in 2016, and in six short years she's amassed Grammy nominations, Juno wins and been invited on a world tour with Billie Eilish. Her last album, When Love Came to Kill Us, dropped just before pandemic lockdowns were enacted in March 2020, and Reyez took that pause as an opportunity to reflect and do some healing. 

The songs on Yessie are the result of that internal work. Relationships and the ways they can fracture and splinter are still at the forefront of her songwriting, but she's leaning less into her penchant for toxicity. In September, Reyez told the Toronto Star about her personal evolution, saying: "I've worked on a lot of healing and I know that some of my older catalogue has a lot of toxicity in it and a lot of that darkness. It's still present in the album, but it's not as present." 

The chorus of "Mutual Friend" is a testament to that: "If you died tomorrow, I don't think I'd cry/ I gave you one too many nights/ don't care if it sound cold, it is what it is." It may be harsh, but it's her truth. Reyez synthesizes her pain into music that is both deeply personal and universally felt. Nothing is ever black and white, and she's so adept at bringing that messy grey area to light. — KA

1. Dawn FM, the Weeknd

The past three years have found the Weeknd levelling up in ways some may have never imagined. Sure, before that, the Toronto R&B star had already topped the Billboard charts, earned numerous awards and smashed streaming records. But Abel Tesfaye's last two albums — 2020's After Hours and this year's Dawn FM — have bolstered him from a mainstream staple to perhaps one of the world's biggest stars, if not the biggest. While the comparisons haven't dissipated just yet, the Weeknd doesn't aim to become the next Drake or Michael Jackson even when his music does nod to the sounds or styles of those artists (see Quincy Jones's cameo on Dawn FM, "A Tale by Quincy"). Instead, the Weeknd has found his own lane, which layers in even more dimensions ranging from horror aesthetics to synth-pop and electronic touches likely finessed by collaborator Oneohtrix Point Never. 

The result on Dawn FM is a beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy in a time when escapism continues to be a welcome respite from the anxieties that still surround us. The album's unofficial narrator, Jim Carrey, puts it best when he urges listeners to "unwind your mind, train your soul to align and dance 'til you find that divine boogaloo." Tesfaye has even found space within his nihilism to let in a sliver of hope, as he acknowledges some of this progress on the Off the Wall-inspired "Out of Time": "There's so much trauma in my life/ I've been so cold to the ones who loved me, baby." Dawn FM is an expansion of the Weeknd's musical universe and with it comes bigger and better hits — a true feat for an artist who is already a decade into his career. But with stadium tours sold out, and even a Super Bowl halftime show under his belt now, one must wonder: what's the Weeknd going to conquer next? — ML 


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